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Guest Column

Sleep out at Covenant House


I can enjoy the same movies over and over like it were the first time to see them.  My kids roll their eyes at this.  Well, many unimaginable things happen as you become a certain age, and you tend to learn to accept those things graciously as gift.   But I remember the movie “The Blind Side.”  Until I saw that movie, I didn’t know homeless children existed.  Or if they did, I assumed, they only remained homeless for a short time.  Surely, a relative or a neighbor will take them in, or they would go to a homeless shelter.  You would think that they’d choose safety rather than expose themselves to natural elements and street gangs.  But in “the Blind Side”, Michael Oher, a homeless high school student, was homeless until a generous and religious couple, Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy took him in.  And Leigh Anne needed to go to quite a length to reach out to Michael and understand him, before he finally agreed to move in with them.

Recently, I saw a TV documentary on homeless youths in Japan.  It depicted girls who had run away from home.  They found places to stay using SNS, and in some cases became victims of sexual assaults. The risks that they were willing to take didn’t make sense to me.  Some found jobs at places like a bar & restaurant in the countryside that needed employees who would work hard without asking for too much.  The restaurant provided an apartment, and the girls secured a place to live.  It looked like a symbiotic relationship, but it still bothered me as the employer definitely had the advantage over the vulnerable girls.  Would they ever summon the courage to leave?

So, when one of my friends asked me to go to a “sleep out” for homeless youth at Covenant House in Newark, I went along.  I didn’t know anything about the event, except that we were going to spend the night in a parking lot.    

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I was told that 101 women attended the “sleep out.”  First, we sat at tables inside the Covenant House.  A girl resident sat with us but didn’t speak a word. I thought of Michael Oher who held so much inside him.  Then I heard some noises behind me. Five women were on the stage, three of them once lived at Covenant House.  One of them was kicked out of her house when she was a teenager and had become pregnant with a second child.  Covenant House New York helped her re-build her life, and now she teaches at a college.  She emphasized the importance of education, but her comment on why she pursued boys’ affection was unforgettable: she was looking for love in the wrong places because she felt ignored by her own mother.

The second woman said that it was very difficult to get used to a structured life at Covenant House, as she’d never had to follow rules. The third and the youngest of the three, who was in the process of applying to one of the most prestigious colleges in the US, said that she was scared on her way to the Covenant House, as she had been running away all her life, and had never walked towards light or hope. 

A social worker told me that many of the homeless youth have experienced a disappointment after having high hopes for something. In the worst cases, people who disguised themselves with a cloak of benevolence took advantage of their hope and victimized them further.  So, although seeking help makes sense to me, for them it could pose a bigger risk or even a threat to their existence. 

I’m not Christian, but I like Christian teaching that says “love your neighbor.”  So, I try to do small good deeds here and there.  Feeling love towards others is an easy part, expressing it is the hard part.  At end of last summer, I was at Newark Penn station waiting for an Amtrak train, and decided to buy a coffee.  Right next to me at a Dunkin Donuts, stood a middle-age black man who looked honest and hard-working.  He was counting his coins, and several inches away from his hands lay a banana.  I held a dollar bill in my hand and wanted to say “can you please let me buy you the banana?”  But I couldn’t. 

When I shared this experience with my group, now sitting on a cardboard in the parking lot, one of them said, “Love can overcome everything.  If you have enough love, you don’t worry about how you look.”  She is a deeply religious woman, and her conviction gives her extra drive to do good. I understood and admired her, however, my concern was not about me.  What held me back was the question: would my good intentions hurt his pride?  And I concluded his pride was more precious than the banana. 

The social worker said, “You know, not even a counselor at Covenant House will go around and help everyone they encounter.”  It’s hard to help someone when you don’t have a relationship. It’s even harder when you want to help someone with your money, even if it is inexpensive as money for a banana. That’s why most of us choose to donate our money and time to organizations who have connections and tools to access the population that we want to help.

I suspect that behind the well-publicized successful cases at Covenant House, there have been many failed cases. Orchestrating and maintaining the supportive environment with education, structure and love are hard work, and for homeless youth with scarred and broken hearts to trust the system and to continue along that path take tremendous work.  I’m sure it’s nothing short of a miracle when a youth residence walks out of the Covenant House with confidence and sense of purpose.

Nonetheless, these 101 women are determined to support the cause. In fact, many of them have been giving it their best over many years. I imagine that even when they don’t see the effect of their goodwill right in front of them, they keep giving, because they believe if they send out their love long enough and often enough, it would make a difference in someone’s life somewhere down the road.  They’re fearlessly walking towards light.  In turn, they receive a gift --- the gift of hope. 

For those who are interested in learning more about Covenant House, the website is:

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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